For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War, ca. 500 BCE
Excessive weakness and excessive violence are both harmful: firmness must be united with moderation.
Confucius, ca. 500 BCE
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
Mao Ze Dong, 1927
The image of violence seems to be excluded or infrequent in the representation of China. The prevailing perception is formed of a peaceful and pacified world, harmonious and mild-mannered, respectful of forms and composure. Images are generally still, but even when they reproduce movement it seems to belong to the natural order of things. There’s dissonance, clangor is absent, as if it was the passing of time—not tensions, and certainly not violence—to cause events. Heroes, athletes, and propaganda manifestos show strength and determination; adversaries succumb, but no one sees them suffer. Grace and lightness— if not submission and deference—prevail especially in the representation of women. This situation is the result of centuries of culture, deposited like dust upon itself to the point of constituting a thick layer that cannot be perforated. It derives from the intersection of various factors, of which two are the most important. The first is the image of stability favored by a conservative and frequently reactionary managing class. Violence is banned because it eschews the order Heaven imposed via the emperor; it defeats the regularity of dynastic passages, and offers a dangerous example for those wishing to rebel. Continuity on the throne needs peace, management lubricated by but rigorous in its social relationships, and accepted and prophetic deadlines, like the changing of seasons. Consequently, this vision was created by the colonial powers that studied and invaded China. The perception belonged to classical “orientalism”, the western idea of a different world, remote and for this reason often incomprehensible. The tensions of a modern society were unknown, class struggles were a premature phenomenon without the industrial revolution, and urban violence was far away from a still agrarian world. Until modern communication contradicted the past, prevalent images of China did not contemplate violence: smiling Chinese that ran with rickshaws, buffalos peacefully submerged in rivers, green terraced rice paddies, and impassive Buddha imparting serenity. The country seemed like an immense Shangri-La: poor, exotic, mystical, without the violence of history, stranger to the tensions of progress, and destined to redeem itself culturally before it could grow
Such an insufficient analysis is surprising because of its longevity. Of the many convictions globalization has brought back into play, this probably erases a consolidated but surely partial image. In fact, China’s human affairs are rife with violence: oppression, exploitation, misery, and discrimination. Violence in the home, workplace, battlefields, prisons, and schools is written on the millions of facets the phenomenon has taken on over the centuries. This complementarity to the perception of a nonviolent China has only emerged in recent decades—when news reports corroborated by photos were no longer deniable. Henri Cartier-Bresson transmitted devastating images during the last days of the civil war, photographers transmitted the horrors of the Japanese occupation, and newspapers diffused the harsh realities of Maoism and the surrender of any form of democracy. Today, it’s no longer possible to reconcile reality with stereotypes, to substitute analysis with battle formations. China is not more or less violent than other countries, only the forms of violence used change. Therefore, it doesn’t have pacifist or aggressive DNA, but relationships that were founded in history. This is where behavioral modalities should be searched and applied to daily bonds and the society’s fundamental values. Everywhere, even in China, the line between peace and war is ephemeral, just like that between violence and dialogue, good and bad. They are divided by perspective, the only thing capable of establishing the boundary of a thin red line.
The opposite of violence. Its roots are ancient, its background noble, and its explanations prestigious. In her famous book, The History of the Chinese Revolution, Professor Enrica Collotti Pischel reminds us that technological superiority was rooted in China. Gunpowder and the compass were invented in China, among other things. Their uses were peaceful: the first was used to perfect fireworks to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the second to improve geomancy. In Chinese science, Feng shui allowed north to be determined and established the most favorable magnetic fields for the construction of buildings. This choice didn’t provoke nor was it shared by European maritime powers. Gunpowder armed their artilleries, and the compass imprinted the rapid development of navigation and conquest. It seems impossible, but tiny Portugal defeated China and seized Macau, which it held until 1999. The colonization of Asia began in 1557. China was big, strong, and well equipped; its socio-political choices caused it to fall to its knees before Portuguese cannons. After only a few decades in 1644, the Ming dynasty fell under the weight of its incompetence. It was brutally crushed by Manchus from the north, but the adopted motivation was convenient for conservation. As if it were a painless change, the Qing substituted the Ming without trauma. Simply and classically, the “mandate from heaven” had expired, and was ready to be transferred to new governors. Blood, swords, and raids were recorded but forgotten by history.
Even today the temptation not to eliminate violence but search for it as much as possible is strong. The last three presidents and secretaries of the CPC adopted watchwords that favored inclusion, unity, stability, and nationalism. There is no appeal to class struggle, social tension, expropriation, and radical positions. Mao Ze Dong’s heirs know that their country needs other priorities to pursue with vigor and severity, but always in their master’s name. Jang Ze Min launched the “Theory of the Three Representations,” where all of China’s representatives—productive forces, culture, and the entire population—were called to unify under the CPC’s direction for the country’s supreme interests. Capitalists, the historic enemies of communist organizations, were cajoled to enter into its ranks. The distance with the requisitions, the Red Army’s ardor, and the organization of the violence toward farmers in Mao’s time were abysmal. Hu Jin Tao terrorized a “harmonious society” where the spectacular GDP growth articulated diffuse well-being; it didn’t distance social disparities but melted them within a general and long-term perspective. Xi Jin Ping’s ambitions to realize a “Chinese Dream” are analogous: a dream for all of China to become strong, prosperous, feared, and respected after two centuries. The use of force and violence—if necessary— needs to remain the exclusive tool of the state and its bureaucracy.
In daily life, violence is not a fundamental part of social dynamics. Obviously it transects them, but the tendencies to seek solutions that exclude it always seem to prevail. Resorting to courts to settle disputes is a last resort. Mediation with consensus needs to be found with the help of sages that appear throughout Chinese literature. Age begets merit, and culture judgment. Disputes are resolved with reserve. If it’s absolutely necessary to bring a case to trial, it’s better to solve the issue in the hallways before presenting before a judge. Antagonism is never sought, and debate is only allowed when it reaches a synthesis, not if it gives way to interminable antitheses. Additionally, criminal violence is statistically very low, and decidedly inferior to what the country’s dimensions and contradictions portend. The security of natural resources is a strong point; African and Latin American assets are far away. Barred windows and armed guards in front of banks or jewelry stores are almost absent. In the limits of statistical percentages, ghettos or impassable zones don’t exist. Personal security, at least in public spaces, presents high and consolidated standards. The harshness of repression doesn’t explain the vastness of the phenomenon. In all of East Asia, criminal violence is perceived as a fact external to society. It may be present, but it’s not endemic and it especially cannot find any analytical benevolence that might justify its existence.
Violence. China’s history is innervated with violence, which is “history’s midwife” here as well. Peasant revolts have regularly and mercilessly crossed the country. When there was no other solution to end the feudal system’s exploitations, the only choice was rebellion. The most famous was the titanic Taiping jacquerie, which lasted 15 years starting in 1850. An irregular army conquered large portions of territory, gave life to a new state—the Celestial Reign of Great Peace—and launched radical reforms in favor of the peasants. Practically all of southern China was in the rebels’ hands. The emperor did not hesitate to ask external enemies for help—the British and French—to defeat the revolution. The repression was extremely violent, merciless, and methodical: it’s estimated that it struck between 20 and 30 million people, primarily civilians. It was one of the greatest massacres in history. Even today the Taiping Revolution, despite enormous political differences with the Maoist insurrection in rural areas, is considered the first organized mass revolt and the repression as the death rattle of a corrupt dynasty, the backlash that confirmed its weakness rather than demonstrated its strength.
The 20th century saw violence multiply, more acute clashes, and military technologies serve ideologies. Its baptism occurred with the Boxer Revolution in 1900, whose epilogue was the repression following the incidents at Tiananmen in 1989. In the first case, the rebellious Chinese had fists and daggers while foreign powers used carbines and dynamite. In the second, the tanks were all Chinese. The Japanese occupation beginning in the 1930s registered a brutality whose memories have not faded after many decades. The massacre in Nanjing at the Nipponese troops’ hands claimed an estimated 300,000 victims killed by swords, firing squads, and starvation in only a few weeks. A more subtle yet equally ruthless violence took place in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation, when bacteriological experiments were performed on prisoners in isolated concentration camps. Yet Chinese victims also had Chinese executioners. The peoples’ rebellions transformed into blood baths; according to André Malraux, the one in Shanghai in 1927 was impregnated with an unstoppable violence that culminated with enemy troops throwing workers to burn alive inside locomotives. In an interview with the French writer, Mao Ze Dong described his political education: “I experienced the great famine in Changsha with the rebels’ severed heads stuffed on top of poles. Certain trees only three kilometers away from my village didn’t have any bark up to twelve feet high: starving people had eaten it all.”
The Maoist period didn’t put an end to the violence, nor would it have been possible to do so. It became an instrument, and sometimes a virtue when its control became fleeting. The pacified society was hypocrisy; you needed to use violence to end violence, and guns to defeat the threat of war. The reconstruction years didn’t want for requisitions, arrests, and punitive campaigns. The methods were perhaps more bland than tradition would have, but certainly not respectful of human rights. Only the perspective changed: the construction of an egalitarian society and therefore free of violence, exploitation, and inequality. The fanaticism reached its apex during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when even Mao incited the Red Army to “bomb the headquarters” belonging to the party he—ironically and tragically—presided over. Millions of people were sent to work in camps, some as punishment, others for reeducation. It’s impossible to count the public trials in the climate of collective hysteria, the complaints against families and friends, the judges, the destruction of temples and every symbol of the past. The institutions that should have guaranteed justice were annihilated because of the impartiality they inspired. It was sufficient and obligatory to belong to the right political position; for this, impartiality was useless: law schools were closed, judges substituted with police officers and soldiers, and to work as an attorney was inconceivable. The China of today, the country we know was born from this suffering, which taught it the lesson of how antagonism can lead to bereavement and abuses.
And yet violence is anything but absent from contemporary China. Party struggles have recommenced despite the physical elimination of the defeated, but it’s especially present in daily life where signs of a wounded society appear. Social disparities are enormous, measured by per capita income, propensity toward consumption, and access to good universities. According to the Gini coefficient, distribution of wealth is more unequal in China than in the US. Enrichments are based on the expropriation of land, discrimination against migrant workers, and the conditions of the entire labor chain. Alienation is very high in the “world’s factory.” The international division of labor has imposed incessant goods production at the expense of labor standards and union rights. The distance between workers and their interest toward the artifacts they’re forced to produce is sidereal. The suicides of Foxconn workers are only the most clamorous examples of a less gory but equally effective violence. Furthermore, the suffering derived from the power elite endures. Women continue to suffer domestic violence, which is also a product of a tradition that finds its roots in an agrarian society. Emancipation included millions of women who, in any case, represent a statistical minority. A centuries-old fate still confines them to gender violence. It wasn’t until the end of 2014 that a law was enacted against beatings within families, transferring the private sphere into the public and therefore assuring punishment. In addition, the use of force on behalf of the state exists, which sometimes takes on the most aggressive forms: termination of pregnant women, the Malthusian single-child policies, the relocations of entire villages, the repression of dissent, and the manipulation of information. In the 1990s, scrupulous entrepreneurs colluded with authorities to encourage peasants to sell their blood in the backwards province of Henan. The promise of an immediate reward caused the most basic prophylactic procedures to be neglected. Millions of people were infected with HIV/AIDS and many other diseases (here is the list of STDs STDAware). A lethal epidemic ensued that was kept hidden to protect those responsible. When the government intervened in 2003, the violence had caused unimaginable suffering and desperation. In the end, interethnic violence landed on the front pages due to its dimensions. In Tibet and especially Xinjiang—which is inhabited by a local Turkic and Muslim population—peaceful coexistence is unable to prevail. Tensions tied to the territories’ Sinicization via the influx of Chinese immigrants are leading to protests assuming the form of bloody attacks and harsh repressions.
Therefore, even in the case of violence, China presents numerous contradictions. Yet again it belies the image of a conservative and immutable country. In some aspects, it demonstrates the capacity to guarantee stability, dialogue, and clemency. In others, it demonstrates that resorting to force is the only antidote to continue bearing the country’s helm. It’s not the presence of absence of violence that distinguishes China. As in all other countries, it possesses forms that belong to both modalities. It’s probably the grey zone that distinguishes China, the space between resistance and explosions of violence, between the sense of discipline and the liberation from all constraints. Occasionally we’re surprised by resignation, other times by the radicalness of the violence, as if the revolution were contemplating the liberation of instincts, not just ideals. It’s the consequence of not knowing how to manage complex situations, the unfamiliarity of operating in mixed territories. Industrialized western societies repress and simultaneously coexist with violence. They’re conscious that modernity produces it, but they consider it an unavoidable collateral effect albeit circumscribable. It’s an admission of powerlessness that limits the damages of an ideological yielding that China cannot yet accept. Concealing violence is easier that recognizing that it’s an integral part of society: it would mean admitting weakness, an example of maturity that China is not yet able to demonstrate.